The University of Hong Kong's launch of the first book written in English by renowned author Eileen Chang received a mixed response yesterday, with one critic calling the novel contrived and pretentious. Dr Roland Soong Yee-long, the administrator of Chang's estate, said the publication of The Fall of the Pagoda, the first part of a fictionalised two-part autobiography, was to coincide with the 15th anniversary of Chang's death and 90th anniversary of her birth this year. Set against the backdrop of the new Chinese republic, plagued by foreign aggression and internal turmoil, the book chronicles her childhood and adolescence from 1924 to 1938 in Shanghai. Taking up the bulk of the 288 pages is the portrayal of her tempestuous childhood, dominated by her indifferent parents and mean-spirited stepmother. It describes how the protagonist, Lute, traumatised by her imprisonment in the basement by her stepmother, flees her home to be reunited with her birth mother. Chang finished the book while living in the United States in 1963. Soong said she had intended it to launch her writing career there. 'She spent five years writing it and the second part, The Book of Change, which involves her experiences in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong in the early 1940s,' he said. 'But no publishers took them up. She was disappointed that her five years of effort came to nothing.' He said Chang stopped writing in English after the lukewarm response. 'The pagoda [in the title] refers to the storied Thunder Peak Tower in Hangzhou mentioned in the Chinese legend of Lady White Snake, who was trapped under the tower [as punishment for falling for a human being]. The imagery of a falling pagoda symbolises the vacuum left by the abdication of Puyi [the last Qing emperor] and the chaos following the establishment of the new republic.' Describing reading the book as an 'exhausting' experience and acknowledging his 'misgivings' about Chang's English, he said she dumbed down her writing to pander to the American mass audience. 'She introduced oodles of orientalism just to please the audience... But I think she would have been pleased to see the book published. In the correspondence she shared with my parents, she revealed her wish to find a publisher for the two books.' The books help fill in some of the loose strands left hanging in Little Reunion, which was published to critical praise and topped the bestseller lists in Hong Kong, Taiwan and on the mainland last year. Perry Lam, the editorial director of Muse magazine, who is a culture critic and a fan of Chang's works, said the rambling narrative style with detailed minutiae of her childhood experiences verged on the pathological. 'Who needs to know so much trivia about her life? As a writer, she might think revisiting her traumatic experience and writing about it could have a therapeutic effect, but as a reader, you'd think she had obsessive compulsive disorder,' he said. 'It's a damp squib compared with Reunion, which has a lot of juicy and explosive content about her sex and love life. [Pagoda] is clich?laden; she tried too hard to impress the readers.' Lam attributed the rare literary misfire by the maestro to the emotional upheaval she endured when she first arrived in the US. 'She upped sticks and left her favourite country and hometown, Shanghai, amid vehement rebukes by her traitorous husband, Hu Lancheng, who betrayed her [with another woman]. That's why traces of psychosis can be seen in the book.' The Book of Change will be published in September, and other books collating Chang's sayings and letters will be published later.